When she was 14 years old, Nereida “Nery” Quesada Garcia ’79 and her parents left Cuba and settled in a markedly different culture and climate in Grand Rapids, Mich.
It was 1972, and the Christian Reformed Church was reaching out to Christian families in Cuba, offering to assist them in building new lives for themselves in America.
“The CRC gave us a good beginning,” said Garcia. “It was a great first impression of Americans. We never felt discriminated; we always felt welcome. I know our immigrant experience was different than it was for most. We had a new visitor every day, it seemed, to help orient us with a variety of things—dentists and doctors, jobs, paperwork—the church truly taught us how to fish.”
While it was hard to leave family and friends behind, adjust to a new culture and learn a strange language, the Quesadas did well, and although Nery wanted to help the family financially after high school graduation, her father insisted she go on to college.
“My father wanted the best school in the area for me—that was Calvin—and it was wonderful that the best college was also a Christian college,” she said.
Garcia said that her days at Calvin were challenging, but tutoring provided the most assistance—and joy. She received great help from fellow students in the English department, and she was able to give great help to fellow students by being a tutor in the Spanish department.
“I learned at Calvin to set high expectations, but along with that offer the support,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I went into the field of ESL [English as a Second Language]. I know how tough it is.”
In her teacher training at Calvin, she worked in a high school Spanish classroom at Ottawa Hills High School and in elementary education at Franklin Elementary. During this time, she met and married another Cuban immigrant sponsored by the CRC, Eduardo Garcia. Eduardo also became a teacher, and together they have two sons and two granddaughters.
Hired initially by the Holland Public Schools out of Calvin, Garcia was recruited away by Grand Rapids Public Schools with an assistant principal’s offer. Another Calvin alumna, Marcia Bishop ’68, then the superintendent of the Holland Public Schools, countered with the offer of a principal’s position. That has led to a 34-year career as a professional educator in Holland—15 years as a teacher and 19 years as a principal.
“It has always been a primary goal of mine to create community throughout the school building,” Garcia said.
She implemented a “school families” concept that she observed at Zeeland Christian into a then-new K–8 structure at Holland East Public. Establishing 42 such “families” of children from different grades, Garcia worked to develop a strong school community and saw a marked decrease in bullying and other negative behaviors.
Garcia also implemented the “Fish” educational philosophy inspired by the delight in teamwork observed in the fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market. Colorful fish toys animate East School’s rooms and hallways.
For today’s teachers-in-training, Garcia recommends experiences in diverse settings. While “kids are kids,” she sees America’s classrooms as important places in which to build the important “unity within diversity” that is necessary for strong communities—and a strong country.
“Teachers nowadays must have that desire and ability to bring diverse students together in a climate of growing and learning. That’s the key,” she said.
Although retiring from teaching and academic administration, Garcia’s plate will remain full. She will be joining the Community Foundation of the Holland-Zeeland Area as director of its K-7 initiative with Destination Education.